Safety of Dozens of Citizens Threatened at ‘Public Hearing’

On October 13, 2009, The Army Corps of Engineering hosted one of six hearing
on the proposed suspension of Nationwide Permits 21 permits on mountaintop
removal in Charleston, WV. Tonight, hearings are also occurring in Pittsburgh,
PA, Big Stone Gap, VA and Cambridge, OH, and citizens are concerned for their
safety at these hearings as well.

At the Charleston, WV hearing, lack of respect for public safety as well as
lack of proper planning created an extremely dangerous situation and prohibited
many people from attending or speaking at the hearing. There was no removal
of those people who were disrupting the event and there was no serious reprimand
of those who were disrupting the event. The Army Corps did not act to prevent
this disruption of free speech.

Before the hearings, the Army Corps and local police were contacted by residents
concerned for their safety. Clearly these concerns were not taken seriously.

Citizens who were endangered are calling again upon Governor Joe Manchin and
other prominent state officials to publicly reprimand those responsible for
creating this dangerous environment and perform a full inquiry into propaganda
from the coal industry of other entities that may have contributed to this
violent situation. Previous pleas to the governor and industry and political
leaders have gone ignored. Instead, inflammatory rhetoric has increased.

Those attending noted that many claims of the coal industry and supporters
were extremely exaggerated or simply untrue. This appears to be the result
of a national fear campaign which is impeding progress in the state of West
Virginia and endangering the lives of citizens. The issues which impact those
who live near mountaintop removal are serious and devastating, and those facing
these issues should receive a safe atmosphere to address them.

It was noted that in West Virginia, the Federal Court decision under Judge
Goodwin all but ended the use of NWP 21 for valley in southern WV where the
Huntington Corps regulates such activities. Therefore, it is likely that none
of those threatening on behalf of the coal industry had jobs that were in any
way impacted by the outcome of the hearing.

Following are a few representative statements from citizens who attended the
hearing, each are available for comment or follow up interviews.

From Maria Gunnoe, Community Organizer, The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition:

After I attempted to scream my comments over the mike, and had put up with
the harassment of the so called “coal miners” surrounding me in
my seat and shouting everything that anyone could lay their tongue to behind
me,
kicking my seat and propping up their feet on my arm rest (mud and all),
I then attempted to peacefully leave.

On the outside the same mob attacked me. One did put his hands on me in their
march following me out of the building and into the parking area. I continued
walking and others were behind me, and they had called police officers to my
rescue. The guy harassing me did say that he knows where I live. I am not real
sure what that is supposed to mean. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

The guys that were behind me were VERY loud in everything they done. One made
a call and he told who ever he was talking to that they were at a rally in
Charleston, and then in the next breath he said it was a protest. I really
don’t think they even know why they were there. All they knew was it had something
to do with their jobs. All they knew is where to show up, and they understood
this to be a protest not a hearing.

Every time anyone started to speak they mob overwhelmed them. I don’t think
anything from out side was actually heard.

Where were the state police?

The ACOE should have another hearing for us! When is our opportunity to
say we’ve got problems with this? I think we should ask for a closed
meeting with the ACOE since the Coal industry had theirs. As usual the industry
tried
to drown us out and make us not matter. It was almost like they were afraid
that we were going to tell their secrets to the world or something.

From Danny Chiotos, Organizer, The Student Environmental Action Coalition:

I was inside the Army Corps of Engineers Public Hearing on the repeal of Nationwide
Permit 21 from 5:30 to 9:30. I am somewhat hesitant to call it a Public hearing
because Mountaintop Removal supporters actively prevented us from giving comments
and actively prevented people who came at 6:30 or after from waiting in line
to enter the building. From what I experienced inside the building and saw
outside the building, the Mountaintop Removal industry’s actions were a direct
and successful attack on our ability to participate in this Hearing.

I saw Mountaintop Removal supporters shout as loud as they could through
every single anti-mountaintop removal speaker. For example, they shouted
through
Vivian Stockman’s comments and then when the Army Corps gave her 15 extra
seconds to speak, the MTR Supporters shouted a countdown of “15-14-13…3-2-1”.
They awarded her an additional 30 seconds after that where she tried to put
together a statement, but there continued to be intentional disruption of
her comments. When I got up to speak, I spoke of my love of my country and
my love
of our values of democracy. I had to shout this and the rest of my comments
into the microphone so that I could hear myself speak over the crowd.

The Army Corps of Engineers does hard and good work, but the way this Hearing
was handled allowed the Mountaintop Removal Supporters to prevent both sides
from being heard. There were many many many many times during the event that
the MTR supporters were asked to be quiet – but none of those requests were
honored. There was no removal of those people who were disrupting the event
and there was no serious reprimand of those who were disrupting the event.
The Army Corps should have had a swifter and more serious response at the beginning
of the event to prevent this kind of disruption of all of our free speech from
happening.

While I was in a conversation, the MTR supporters repeatedly shoulder shoved
me to get me to move.

Outside of the building, the situation was even more serious. There was
a crowd of 500 or so Mountaintop Removal supporters who physically and verbally
threatened those on our side who were trying to patiently wait in line. Many
people who would have waited in line to enter and give their comments (as
people
left from inside) were forced to leave, infringing on their freedom to participate
in this event. My girlfriend and her step-father were outside, about to enter
the building when their lives and safety was threatened. At 7:49 PM I received
a text message from her that said, “They [MTR Supporters] are screaming
at us Said theyd string us from trees One had to be restrained for attacking
us We werent responding They [the police] said it was easier to make us leave
than to make them [MTR Supporters] stop We were next in line to get in.” The
person who had to be restrained from attacking her took three police officers
to hold him back. When I went to the police to alert them to the situation,
they threatened to kick me out. I got a similar call from friends who were
trying to wait to get in but were unsafe from the attitude of the mob-like
crowd. This happened time and time again that evening.

When I left the building with a small crowd of friends under police escort,
which was necessary because we were getting reports of threats and violence
from the MTR supporters outside, there were repeated threats and obscenities
hurled at me.

The response of the police was to punish our attempts to voice our opinions.
The City of Charleston’s police did all they could to respond to the situation
and I know that they were trying to maintain safety as much as possible and
I respect them. The police also did a great job of escorting me and other anti-mountaintop
removal speakers through the crowd outside to the safety of our cars, which
was necessary. The decision on the number of officers present and the decision
to allow the MTR supporters to assemble directly in front of the entrance to
the Civic Center were poor ones, though. There needed to be more police on
hand to keep order. The impression, which I’m not sure is true, of the police’s
goal was to maintain safety by doing everything that they could to ensure that
the MTR supporters’ crowd kept from rioting (from where I stood it seemed like
they were really close to significant violence).

The placement of the crowd of MTR supporters was a serious mistake as well.
This crowd should have been kept away from the main entrance to the Civic
Center or there should have been another entrance opened up. The MTR supporters
definitely
have the right to protest, but their rally should have been kept at a respectful
distance from the entrance to the building. The reality that the response
to the threats of the MTR supporters’ crowd was to remove anti-MTR citizens
and
prevent them from participating in this event speaks to the fact that this
was not a “public” or “safe” event.

This is a serious issue on the protections of our right to free speech and
our right to safety. With the increasingly threatening and mob-like atmosphere
that surrounds the MTR Supporters’ crowd, the Police who we rely on to maintain
safety have to be ready in force to maintain safety.

From Chuck Nelson, Glen Daniel, West Virginia:

There were about ten of us, we were the last group leaving from inside. We
were waiting to give our comments when word was brought back in about what
was happening outside. As we talked with each of our group inside, things just
kept getting more crazy. We decided to leave then as a group, and proceeded
to make our departure.

Insults were hurled at us as we were leaving, with a bunch of thugs following.
Once in the lobby, I went directly to a Charleston city officer, and requested
an escort to our vehicles, with an angry group outside the doors. The officer
told me, that we should have known what was going to happen when we came
there. He did escort us to the front doors, and told Ben, as we were leaving, “You
are on your own.”

We made our way outside, only to be met with more insults — that followed
us practically all the way to our vehicles. We made calls on our phones, and
tried to make sure that everyone was all right.

I wondered where the state troopers were, not one was ever visible. I wonder,
how in the world can the Army Corps make a decision on an important permit,
when they can’t even conduct a proper, and peaceful hearing?

From Dana Kuhnline, Charleston, WV

I had to leave early and didn’t see any point in speaking anyway. I had
left my bag in my friend’s car, so he waited in the lobby while I dashed out
to the car, got my bag, and went to return the keys. He wasn’t at the door
when I got back and so I texted him; the police wouldn’t let me in to return
them. While I stood there waiting for him to return, the mob folk thought I
was trying to get into the hearing and were screaming and pulling at my bag.
They got a rousing chant of “Go Home!” started which was ironic,
because of course their antics were preventing me from doing so. The Police
officer wouldn’t let me inside to wait for my friend even though I was being
threatened, pushed and stepped on. When my friend came back and grabbed the
keys, the police officer said, “Do me a favor, for your own personal
safety, leave as soon as you can, don’t try to engage these people in conversation”

I was a little dumbfounded, but didn’t have the presence of mind to ask
for a police escort. So I turned to leave, and someone was stomping my feet
and
pushing me really hard so that I flew forward into a few miners. I turned
to see who it was and it was a lady holding a little baby! She had another
woman
as her back up and they were both screaming in my face, and trying to pick
a fight about why I would attack a little baby. I looked at her and said, “You
pushed me with your baby?” and walked away.

As I moved through the crowd, people deliberately blocked my path pushed me
and pulled on my bag. I made it through the main crowd and maybe 3-4 people
tried to get in a screaming match with me, but I did my best to ignore them.

From Charles Suggs, Rock Creek, WV

I knew that they weren’t letting anyone else into the hearing, so I stayed
on the edge of the crowd, keeping distance between myself and most people.

Three people, who have been calling for the abolition of mountaintop removal,
were backed up against the entrance doors by the mob crowd who was shouting
many things at them, including death threats. The three started to make their
way along the wall, moving left with the doors at their backs. Zoe Beavers
and a few others joined them.

I was still around the edge of the crowd, but noticed that things were heating
up by the wall to the side of the doors and started that way to see what exactly
was happening. A well dressed, plain-clothes officer then came up and told
me I had to leave for my safety and the safety of his officers.

Beavers was talking with a school teacher whose husband is a miner. The teacher
was yelling and getting the mob more riled up. An officer came over and ordered
Beavers to follow him well out of the crowd. He forbade her from re-entering
the crowd and said that she’d be arrested and booked for disturbing the peace
if she did. The most peaceful people in the crowd were threatened with arrest
for disturbing the peace.

Four more people opposed to mountaintop removal arrived after we were escorted
out by the police and were also subjected to insults and spitting. One person,
who was attempting to leave, was surrounded by shoulder-to-shoulder mountaintop
removal supporters who were shouting “You’re not getting out of here.” She
couldn’t get out until she yelled for a cop to get her out of there.

Only opponents of mountaintop removal were asked to leave who, despite the
shouting and aggression from the mob, remained quite peaceful. And they were
asked to leave for disturbing the peace. Some democratic, public hearing that
was.

From Vernon Haltom, Co-Director, Coal River Mountain Watch:

I went to the Charleston, WV, hearing hosted by the US Army Corps of Engineers,
but was unable to get in and give comments because the place was full. This
was after enduring a gauntlet of coal cult thugs hurling every insult imaginable
at me and the people who came with me to see and listen. Although a few other
people and I were in line and had filled out the registration forms to give
comments, the Charleston police made us go out of the building where we were
surrounded by more thugs pushing against us, threatening our lives, and again
hurling insults. Our group included an eighty-year-old woman enduring 300-pound
thugs screaming obscenities within three feet of her ears.

After 15 minutes or so of this shameful display, the Charleston police required
us to leave. Because it was easier to control a group of 6 or 7 peaceful people
than a mob of hundreds of violence prone thugs, and because the police did
not want any of us or the police to get hurt, they escorted us off the premises.

Essentially, police inability to control the mob resulted in our inability
to give verbal comments. While the building was full, we were prepared to enter
once a few people left, but the police removed us from our place in line and
removed us from the premises while the insult-hurlers were allowed to stay.

Our friends inside the hearing were able to give comments, but were drowned
out by the mob. When they complained to the hearing moderators, they were
told the clock was ticking. When they left, the police refused to escort
the last
small group to their vehicles, forcing them to run the gauntlet without protection.
The police said, “You all knew what you were getting into; you’re
on your own,” or a similar reply when asked for escort to cars.

The TV news channels didn’t show this side of the night, and no one
from the pro-mountain side appeared on TV. Instead, the TV news interviewed
coal supporters and implied there was no one from our side giving testimony.

From one of the hearings, news coverage showed one of the Corps of Engineers
people saying, essentially, “This is democracy working.” This
was not democracy working. It was a mob intimidating both the Charleston
police
and the US Army, as well as the peaceful citizens who came to give comments
to protect their homes, live, and communities.

These are scary times in Appalachia.

Mary Wildfire

The group of 750 angry miners and associated people roared with cheers and
applause after each of their speakers, often with standing ovations. If the
Army Corps wanted to allow that, I suppose it’s okay—but it certainly
contributed to the misapprehension on the part of many in the crowd that they
were at a rally. And in fact it was a rally, as the Corps people leading the “hearing” allowed
the crowd to scream abuse at each of the speakers on the other side, drowning
them out so that the recorder often threw up his hands, unable to hear.

The man in camo leading the “hearing” periodically said mildly, “Please
allow the gentleman/lady to speak,” but did not ask that the ones doing
the heckling be ejected, though Bill Price asked him to do so. Perhaps given
the size and temper of the crowd, it would have been a ticklish thing to attempt.
But the Corps people certainly could have said “if there are any more
interruptions, I’m going to shut down this hearing and reschedule it,” or “each
person gets three minutes. If there are interruptions, the clock stops. Now
if you want this hearing to end tonight, you will allow each speaker the courtesy
of their three minutes,” or something like that.

By the time I was called to speak I simply said that I had signed up to
speak under the illusion that it was to be a public hearing, but it was in
fact a
coal rally, and that I knew I would not be permitted to speak and obviously
the people in charge were fine with one side being silenced, so I wasn’t
going to try to speak.

This drew enthusiastic applause from the mob, happy to see the first person
on the other side stopped from even trying to speak.

When we got outside we caught up at that point with Maria Gunnoe who was
just ahead of us. At this point we asked the police there to please escort
us to
our cars, as a large group of men in Massey miners’ stripes began following
us. I was watching this behind me and did not see a man attack Maria, but turned
as I heard another policeman saying, “Touch her again and I’ll
take you right to jail.” The man was saying, “I never touched her!” as
we asked Maria if he had in fact touched her—she said yes, he had pushed
her. We continued walking rapidly toward our cars, talking about whose car
was where and how Maria would get safely home. She confirmed that she was
driving alone which worried me, given the intense animosity toward her of
many in the
crowd…

I commented on what it must be like for those who live in the coalfields,
not only to be surrounded by these people all the time, but to go “home” to
a place with the sound of blasting and the lights of the dragline as a constant
reminder that it isn’t really home in any meaningful sense. Maria’s
family has been there many generations, I guess that’s why she stays—I
could not endure all she has. I was very stressed last night and still felt
extremely tense this morning.

Bottom line: the Army Corps of Engineers did not hold a public hearing in
Charleston

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